Thousands of geishas graced Japanese streets 100 years ago. Today their numbers are dwindling, but geisha makeovers are wildly popular. What’s the secret to geisha allure? I find out in Kyoto.
“Open your eyes.”
I did as I was told, and my vision slowly focused on the mirror.
Staring back were two magenta lined eyes.
“Scary,” I thought to myself as a heavy black wig was put on my head.
I was sitting inside a Kyoto photography studio, being transformed into one of Japan’s most secretive female symbols, the geisha.
I wasn’t the only one.
Inside the studio sat at least 10 other women, eagerly waiting to don the garish costume and walk the streets with a new persona.
Although it may seem bizarre, there are many incarnations of this dress up experience in Japan. One extreme is Cosplay, or costume performance art, in which young people dress as anime characters or romanticized historical figures. A thriving subculture, it’s not uncommon to see girls waiting at a bus stop dressed like Little Bo Peep toting a lacy parasol.
On the milder end are costume photo sessions. These translate into something like old timey black and white pictures. The difference, however, is that the Japanese version often includes a public showcase.
In Kyoto, it makes sense geisha portraits would be appealing. A century ago, the sake pouring courtesans flourished here. Despite the male-dominated society, they became wealthy businesswomen.
Today, only a few hundred geisha remain. The reasons are varied. At a young age, girls must undergo years of apprenticeship for little pay. They forego standard education and live on the fringe of society, often remaining single. Most importantly, women possess a much wider range of economic outlets now.
The portrait session was a curious encounter. No outside photographs or video are allowed, and there is no chance to admire the kimonos or examine the unique cosmetics. Over one hour, several attendants brusquely take participants through a elaborate makeup, hair, and enrobing rituals. It occurred to me that these very techniques have likely been employed for centuries.
I was also surprised by the effort required to put on a kimono. I stood patiently for about 15 minutes as assistants wrapped undergarments this way and that, making it hard to breathe. When they finished and attached the bright green obi sash, I had a moment of claustrophobia.
Metamorphosis complete, I descended into the busy streets for the stroll, and I realized the full value of this event.
In my experience, locals are reserved around foreigners. But, dressing as a geisha was a tremendous icebreaker. In two years of living here, I’ve never had such spontaneous interaction.
In fact, I must have been an amusing spectacle. Crowds of curious observers formed, snapping pictures. Many shopkeepers walked out of their stores to approach and make small talk.
“Kiwotskute!” (careful!) people warned, noticing my shaky footing in the wooden sandals.
Unexpectedly, I found myself meeting, laughing, and connecting with strangers. Pasty white makeup and all, I forgot I was in costume.
Later that evening with fake eyelashes removed, I stepped into the streets as my former self. No one paid attention to me in the least.
Then, I heard a big commotion. Before me stood two beautiful women in a group of gregarious businessmen. Real geisha.
“Kirei,” (pretty) I told the women as they shuffled into a taxi amid camera flashes.
Inside the taxi, one of the geisha rolled down her window and her magenta lined eyes looked in my direction. We made eye contact, and she smiled as the taxi whisked her away.